Americans love a ‘Spelling Bee‘. They are unique competitions where precocious children battle it out in a linguistic street-fight, whilst anxious parents look on with a mix of pride and anguish. It is a big deal in the USA. Arvind, the latest winner, won $30.000 for his efforts! If you have seen the compelling documentary, Spellbound, then you will know the intensity and drama of the competition. Recently, I came across some research attempting to diagnose the practice methods that accounted for the victors of these ‘Spelling Bee’ competitions – ‘Deliberate Practice Spells Success : Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee‘, by Angela Duckworth et al. Clearly, Arvind Mahankali is a gritty individual! I am interested how we can create more Arvind’s in our classroom – students who are willing to apply the long-term effort and practice to succeed.
The research outlines two driving reasons for the success of the students, like Arvind, taking part in the ‘National Spelling Bee’: ‘grit‘ and ‘deliberate practice‘. Here is a helpful definition of ‘grit‘:
“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.”
From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson
I have written a whole post defining ‘deliberate practice’ and its transformative power – see here. It can simply be defined as a mode of practice that is repeated consistently, but crucially supported by timely, precise feedback. It narrows the complexity of a task into specific components that can be drilled, honed and ultimately made automatic.
It is hard to extrapolate ‘answers‘ from the unique circumstances of the National Spelling Bee, or individuals like Arvind, to classroom learning more generally, but it does spark interesting questions about how we approach teaching and learning to promote ‘grit‘. I began to think of students in my own school whom I teach who share the same ‘grittiness’ as students like Arvind – the spelling superstar.
I teach one young man in one of my A Level classes. It is rather surprising he is sitting A levels at all. Based on his prior attainment, level 3 in his KS2 SATs, he is an unlikely candidate for further academic study; yet, he makes a mockery of national comparable outcomes. His GCSE results smashed his targets relative to equivalent students nationally and his success will no doubt continue. In my current year 10 GCSE class I have two students, one boy and one girl, who share all the ‘gritty’ traits of successful students like Arvind. At the start of the year, when I discussed their English targets with them, they both agreed to raise their personal target grades. Indeed, they pushed for this to be the case. Ever since they have approached lesson and every homework with a concerted effort that has outdone all their peers. It has seen them rise above expectations and achieve as well as, if not better, than other supposedly ‘brighter’ students with higher target grades.
I am fascinated by what processes and circumstances that create and develop students like those aforementioned. I would observe, from good knowledge of their siblings, that there is certainly an aspect of familial traits which account for their gritty character. Having role model parents exhibiting character traits that embody a true ‘grit’ goes a hell of a long way. According to John Hattie: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. As teachers and school leaders we do need to so a better job of sharing a dialogue with all parents about how to develop ‘grittiness’. Carole Dweck, in her work on the ‘growth mindset’, has very useful advice for parents on ‘praising effort and not ability’, ’embracing failure on the path to success’ and so on.
Of course, we need to go beyond talking the talk. we must teach with an aim to foster confident, knowledgeable and ‘gritty’ students. The following is my advice to teachers on how you can encode ‘gritty practice‘ in your pedagogy on a daily basis:
No teacher would challenge the impact of good quality feedback on student outcomes. Undertaken well, and couched in the right language, feedback can set goals that inspires the effort required to undertake the long slog of ‘deliberate practice’. Researchers have proven that setting challenging goals makes a positive difference to students – see here and it surely chimes with our innate common sense too! There is widespread knowledge of research, initiated by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, that proves that removing levels can have a positive impact upon students. If they focus upon formative feedback then they get better. If they possess the ‘grit‘ to persevere with responding to such feedback then they will become better learners.
Arvind and his fellow spelling spelling stars all receive plenty of expert coaching, but such feedback can also be replicated in the classroom with consistency. The students I teach that I used as exemplars absolutely thrive on feedback. They ask for it despite often being quiet individuals in the classroom setting. They produce extra work to get even more feedback. They willingly raise their targets to receive more challenging feedback and more challenging goals. I have realised that if I focus on precise and regular formative feedback, students can become ‘grittier’ and be more inclined to undertake the typically difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’.
Public critique and student feedback
Teacher feedback is crucial, but as Graham Nutthall’s research indicated (read ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘), students receive most of their feedback from their peers, either formally or informally. We must therefore train students and scaffold their language to ensure the feedback they give is laced with ‘grittiness‘! Ron Berger’s strategy for ‘Public Critique’ is a very useful way of ensuring that student feedback hones in on the right kind of feedback – particularly with a ‘specific‘ focus upon making improvements. I have written about the gallery-style approach to ‘Public Critique’ here. If we ensure that students give one another better feedback we can engender more opportunities for ‘deliberate practice’, enhancing their ‘grittiness‘.
A Culture of ‘Practice Perfect’
Doug Lemov’s brilliant book, ‘Practice Perfect‘, is about how the effective practice can encode success. We can ensure students are better prepared to undertake genuine independent study by drilling them with strong patterns of practice. For example, by repeatedly getting students to tackle ‘worked examples‘ or working to group, classify or improve models of writing we can help them to automate the knowledge needed to become genuinely independent writers. Scaffolding students strongly in the first instance, then moving towards more independent work (with specific feedback again) is nothing new, but honing this process over and over can give students the habits for independent ‘deliberate practice’ which can see students make successful transformations in their learning.
A second key aspect of encoding success is by having a culture of crafting and drafting (read the gems of wisdom from Ron Berger on this aspect here). I was only yesterday speaking to a colleague who worked with a really weak SEN group. She worked on rewriting one piece of work at least four times. I had done exactly the same with my more able GCSE group this year. Students are often asked to complete one draft and then we praise them regardless of whether it is the very best they can do. We need to pursue the often ugly, difficult process of ‘deliberate practice’ in this instance and once more embed the highest standards of challenge into the work we expect from our students – encoding in their minds an innate sense of what excellence looks like and feels like so that they can replicate it.
Better Questioning Strategies
We often forget that our core pedagogy – simply the construction of our questioning – can have a significant impact upon the standards and expectations our students form. For example, if they are allowed the get-out clause of simply saying ‘I don’t know‘ to questions in class then they will avoid the challenge of answering questions in class. If we only proffer closed questions with an easy ‘guessing the answer the teacher wants‘ game for students we will sell students short. We need to ask students more challenging ‘why’ questions (see my post on ‘why’ questions here and my post on asking open and inclusive questions here). The simple truth is that by keeping the level of challenge high in all oral communication in our classroom we will foster a culture that engenders ‘grittier‘ students.
There is much debate about the value of homework, with evidence from John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ proving it is more effective for older students. Of course, the evidence is problematic – see this post from Tom Sherrington about the homework debate, complete with a reply from John Hattie: ‘Homework: What does the Hattie research tell us?. My experience of homework is that the students who apply themselves to homework most consistently are those students who make the most progress in my lessons. Unsurprising really! I’m sure Arvind differentiated himself from the thousands of competitors in the ‘National Spelling Bee’ by undertaking such ‘homework’.This also applies with unerring accuracy with the students I have exemplified.
Only this last week in my GCSE English class students were given a homework task to further research and make final notes in preparation for a Shakespeare controlled assessment. The aforementioned boy in the group, the epitome of a gritty and determined individual, went far beyond most of the other students. What he may lack in innate ability in comparison to some other students in the group, he makes up for and exceeds with effort. Given an open brief and some links and multiple resources, he went to town on the homework. Subsequently, he was far better prepared than most other students, making those marginal gains that will see him excel. My answer is simple. We must set purposeful and challenging homework regularly, with related feedback on that homework. We should embed into our lesson plans a celebration of students who go the extra mile with homework.
We must recognise that a singular inspirational assembly will not embed the attitude, knowledge and skills required to make any difference to the ‘grittiness‘ of our students in the long term. We do need to embed the attitudes and ideas associated with ‘grit‘ in the daily language of a school, with all teachers authentically sharing the belief that concerted effort and ‘grit‘ can make a definitive difference for our students. I do think that simply using the language is not enough and that we need to think about applying the concepts to our pedagogy with routine consistency. We must root ‘grittiness‘ into the culture, language, pedagogy and daily practice of our schools.
– An excellent US Dept of Education report on ‘Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance‘.
– An interesting article from the New York Times: ‘What if the Secret to Success is Failure?’
– An extensive report by the Young Foundation: ‘Grit – The Skills for Success and how they are Grown’. Via Zoe Elder (thank you Zoe).
There appears to be a significant rise in coaching in schools at the moment that provides hope for a more coherent approach to teacher improvement. The whole topic of Performance Development is schools is a contentious topic. Clearly, performance related pay and other ideas are being mooted with justified scepticism from teachers. Of course, the lines between coaching and Performance Development can, and will, be blurred and obscured, but if we can develop a system of coaching free of the inhibiting spectres of annual targets, or even OFSTED, then there is hope for a developmental system of teacher improvement that might well make a difference to teachers and therefore to the ultimate success of students.
Over the last year I’ve sourced evidence through Dylan Wiliam and beyond about the plateau in development experienced by teachers (indeed most professionals) after a couple of years. In American research, by Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), it has stated that after three years there is little improvement in teacher quality. It would stand to reason that teachers reach a level of competency when they can then effectively switch on the autopilot and teach very well…or not of course. This plateau in performance also correlates with a lessening of direct coaching. On a PGCE course, in the NQT year, and sometimes in the third year, teachers are regularly engaging in coaching conversations – many intentionally, or some as a by-product of early performance development. After that the ‘continuous‘ aspect of ‘Continuing Professional/Performance Development’ too often gets lost. Coaching is the potential antidote. It can provide the vehicle for ‘deliberate practice’. ‘Deliberate practice’ isn’t a process of vague trial and error – it is a process of specific chunking of teaching skills, repeated practice, with regular and precise feedback. It is this crucial mode of feedback which requires continued coaching. There are many models and methods of coaching which I will likely explore in further posts, but I wanted to share what i thought was some useful reading on the topic. There are many books in the field, both specific and some not specific to the profession. I have selected what I have found most useful in my attempt to be a better Subject Leader and coach:
1. ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’, by Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi.
This is my favourite coaching book as it is packed with a host of practical approaches to coaching in the school context and methods to improve the all-important ‘deliberate practice’ so key to becoming a better teacher (see my post on ‘deliberate practice’ here). It gives lots of specific examples with everything from the right phrasing to encouraging a coaching mindset, to detailed accounts of where to practice and how.
2. ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ by Carole Dweck.
In many ways this book has become seminal in the field and education and beyond to articulate the psychology of success. The dichotomy of the positive ‘growth mindset’ and the more limiting ‘fixed mindset’ underpins the language and practical process of coaching. It isn’t the most practical of coaching books, as it focuses on illuminating the concept with examples, but it does provide some crucial advice about using language effectively in coaching. Also, it provides a clear narrative that any coach can communicate with ease to make the process more effective and, hopefully, more likely to succeed.
3. ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else‘ by Geoff Golvin.
There are many excellent books now on the market that focus on the development of expertise and even genius. From Daniel Coyle to Matthew Syed, there are books well worth your time, but if I had to choose one book about performance and practice, which combines the theory of Dweck with the practical focus of Lemov, it would be Golvin’s book. He presents a compelling argument for ‘deliberate practice’ with lots of specific approaches, from becoming better at golf to being great in business, he priorities the importance of feedback, central to effective coaching, and outlines the grit and perseverance in evidence when analysing expert performers.
4. ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard‘, by Dan and Chip Heath.
This book is not about coaching or teaching in any specific way. It is, however, essential reading for any professional looking to help make changes in an organisation and with individuals. It is so good I couldn’t help but write a blog post all about it here. The book brilliantly articulates how you can change habits, even the most hardened, which is essential knowledge for a coach. It also clarified the emotional factors underpinning performance and how you can positively help an individual makes changes to their practice. It presents an intriguing range of case studies that will get any would be teacher, coach or school leader reflecting deeply.
5. ‘Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising Impact on Learning’ by John Hattie.
You would be forgiven for asking why I haven’t chosen more books specifically about coaching itself. I think there are some laudable subject specific books, but I would argue it is paramount that any teacher coach needs to be themselves great learners, readers and researchers on education in order to coach colleagues towards improving practice. What is key is that coaches in schools have a broad knowledge of pedagogy and that any coaching actually focuses in upon teaching and learning that has the greatest impact. School leaders and coaches are duty bound to synthesise the best research in the field, followed by research that approaches such research with practical applications. Books like Zoe Elder’s brilliant ‘Full On Learning‘ or Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ are essential in developing an expert range of pedagogy. Hattie’s research is so fundamental in that it slays some sacred cows and actually guides teachers towards pedagogy that is proven to work, with the evidence that underpins the practice. Of course, context is crucial, so even huge meta-analyses of evidence needs to be equated with individual school contexts, but the book is a must read for a well informed coach.
I have had the difficult task of narrowing the number of books to only five, but I expect Jackie Breere’s prospective ‘The Perfect Coach‘ will be another gem that synthesises many practical approaches to coaching in schools if the rest of the ‘Perfect’ series in anything to go on. If you have any great suggestions for other books specifically on coaching in schools, or other books related to coaching then please do comment. If we are to be a good coach, we must pursue knowledge and good practice deliberately and reading and researching is a great start.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee
When I was a young boy I dreamt of being like Bruce Lee. He had complete mastery over his body and mind. He was a genius who could also beat anybody up, if required…crucial for a young, bespectacled light-weight like me! I remember owning a book on ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu‘ – only, I never did commit myself to the training. For one, no-one wanted to grapple with me or be repeatedly kicked a thousand times over, and secondly, my big brother was, well…just too big! After dabbling with a few thousand hours of football practice over the years, without expertise, the next great passion became the pursuit of becoming an expert teacher. This is what brings me back around to Bruce Lee twenty years later. His quotation above about ‘deliberate practice‘ has many ramifications for what our professionalism means and how we must work in schools to improve if we want to become experts and great teachers. The ‘Twelve Bridges’ of ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu’ provide excellent behaviour management poses for the discerning teacher!
Many people know the many great quotations about effort trumping ability; about genius resulting from resilient persistence, rather than innate ability. The mystique that attends the genius attributed to the likes of Bruce Lee (I remember the stories about his fabled ‘one inch punch’ or his superhuman flexibility) is stripped away and the theory of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice presents us with an all too human answer to what becoming an expert means – simply lots of effort! Although more nuanced scientific evidence deems the epic 10,000 as an average, with research proving 3,000 hours can establish expert status in a specific domain, such as chess – see the research here). A famous example of the popular 10,000 hours hypothesis is in Malcolm Gladwell’s enjoyable narrative, based loosely on the theme of ‘deliberate practice‘ , entitled ‘Outliers‘. Gladwell takes a more anecdotal, magazine-style approach; whereas the likes of Geoff Colvin grapple with a more rigorous on ‘deliberate practice’, which is much more specific and complex a narrative than Gladwell suggests. A good example is this golfing analogy form Colvin:
“For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Geoff Colvin, ‘What It takes to be Great’
Interesting elements of the research used by Colvin, from K Anders Ericsson deserve a reading and could be compressed into nuggets like this:
“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer
Now, undertaking a vast amount of practice does not confer expertise, otherwise we would have moved towards some practice driven master-race long ago! A whole host of other factors weigh into the mix to complicate the rightly lauded power of effort. Factors such as the underpinning motivational qualities and perseverance of the individual; the quality of coaching; the innate cognitive ability of the person and the capacity of their working memory to retain key information. These are just some of the complications that muddy the narrative somewhat. Yet, they may muddy the water, but they do not eliminate the big fish of the idea: that the simple but very powerful idea that ‘deliberate practice‘ can have a transformative impact on performance for teachers and beyond.
Also, it is crucial to note that just turning up for work and bashing out a few lessons is not true ‘deliberate practice‘ either. ‘Deliberate practice‘ has some very specific qualities which differentiate it from mere ‘practice‘, or what we typically deem ‘work‘. This is what is key for schools when aiming for a successful Performance Development system for example. ‘Deliberate practice‘ is not ‘mindless‘ repetition, where a teacher uses the same resource or strategy willy nilly, in a loose ‘trail and error’. It is not trying lots of fun, new resources or teaching strategies out on a pliant group. Instead, it is about a deeply reflective process, that is highly rigorous and specific.
It is therefore often slow and difficult – nothing like the ‘flow’ state articulated by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It requires organisation and often works best as action research, or other such reflective process, like blogging your practice. The process undertaken is not easy – therefore discipline, the sort possessed by a rare few, is paramount. The ‘flow’ may come later, with mastery of an aspect of teaching for example, if at all. Too often in education we expect that if we adapt to find something that will establish that ‘flow’ for students they will fly, but the reality is that we are doing them a disservice. if we never make them persevere with the struggle and failure of undertaking difficult work they will never have the ‘grit’ to be true experts in anything. We need to train ourselves, and our students in what W. B. Yeat’s poetically described as “the fascination of what is difficult” if we are to last the course. It takes time and effort – some deep habit forming actions – with a strong degree of resilience to plough through the many failures on the path to mastery.
Here is my simplified idea of some of the key steps in the process:
Key Steps for Successful ‘Deliberate Practice’
1. Define the time and place High quality ‘deliberate practice’ requires a careful consideration of time and place (just like good habit forming). Consider: when is the best time to reflect? When are you best focused and for how long? Define the time and place specifically. Be consistent and persistent about the habit. Ericsson’s research notes that consistency is key.
2. Research your evidence thoroughly, then define, and refine, your focus. Share with a coach/critical friend Then there is the reflective thinking about the specific focus of the practice (intelligent research is key here). Have you researched all the evidence? Do you know your Hattie from your ‘Brain Gym’? Then each skill needs to be broken down into sharply defined elements. The focus is then entirely on that one minor element – over and over, as Bruce Lee describes. As Dylan Wiliam, rather paradoxically stated, “we must stop trying to do too many good things.” Our focus must be narrow – be it asking great questions; establishing rigorous peer feedback etc. – otherwise we will not be able to make exacting improvements. Too much ‘Performance Development’ is over ambitious, has too many strands, or is has distractions divorced from our core pedagogy.
3. Record your evidence and your reflections systematically. Have an open and frank dialogue with your coach on a consistent basis Then it becomes a case of recording that practice (the aforementioned action research and blogging is ideal). It could be an individual blog, or a departmental or school blog. It can be better when you are part of a group whom are willing to give you focused, supportive criticisms, but sometimes that is impractical for the degree of close coaching required. The audience and feedback to a blog can also be very useful to the process. What is important is that we record continually to give structure to our reflections. If we leave our responses down to memory we may well fall prey to ‘confirmation bias‘ i.e. we will believe what we want to believe! This is far from easy in the hurly burly of the day job, so school leaders would do well to facilitate as much of this time as possible, providing resources such as time (all important), the technical support and high quality coaches. Good quality time: such as your coach observing your practice (it could be as short as five minutes) and giving you very specific feedback; or observing experts, within and without of your school, needs to happen weekly. Not only that, to make significant improvements the teacher must be willing to devote more time than could be realistically allocated within school hours. As Ron Berger states, an ‘ethic of excellence’ must be cultivated.
4. Share, reflect and repeat…and repeat… No-one said this process would be easy – becoming an expert in anything takes a grinding determination for betterment. Some people simply don’t care enough to face the difficulty – this is true in all professions and walks of life. Repetition is dull, recording evidence lacks the ‘sexiness’ of the performing act! It is why so few people become true experts. As teachers, we often enjoy the trialling of a new strategy – by the fifth attempt at improving the strategy, the inclination to undertake more student voice or record more summative evidence becomes a burden we simply let fall aside. This is where the discipline of step 1 comes in; as well as the responsibility to your coach and/or wider audience in step 2 and 3.
Coaching in Schools
Coaching is becoming a much more common phenomenon in schools. It is linked to ‘Performance Development’, but that link is problematic. Whilst performance targets are linked to career advancement, we will always naturally become risk averse; falling back upon more well established practices to meet the performance goals. This conservative response doesn’t encourage the attitude needed for the real development of expert skills. Not only that, the best laid plans of ‘Performance Development’ targets at the beginning of the school year often lack the flexibility required for really effective ‘deliberate practice‘. We become determined to ‘pass’ our ‘Performance Development’ target, regardless of whether the target itself may have become useless to our real development needs – if it ever was in the first place.
What schools must do, therefore, is carefully delineate between ‘coaching’ and ‘Performance Development’. They must coach good coaches; they must facilitate time for the deliberate practice to be observed, recorded and reflected upon. Schools must ask how they can lever this type of practice into our weekly structures. Schools must have a relentless focus upon sharing good pedagogy, whilst encouraging that sharing across the boundaries of the school gates. There is evidence to say that teachers stop developing after two or three years. That is to say, that basics of behaviour management are mastered and the basic repertoire of pedagogy is established, but then there must be a fallible ‘trial and error’ process stopping some teachers moving towards true expertise. In our PGCE year, and our NQT year, we typically receive consistent feedback and we often exist in a state of constant reflection (often with fraught nerves and on the brink of exhaustion!). The problem is that is after the close, consistent weekly coaching process stops then we inevitably plateau as professionals. We must work on the ‘continuous’ aspect of performance development in the truest sense: each day, each week and each term.
In reality, such a focused coaching process could be costly and time consuming. The only answer is for leaders to inspire a culture where teachers undertake ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a desire for betterment; where there is some time facilitated regularly; quality training in groups on pedagogy, not time frittered away in endless meetings. As a subject leader myself, I needed to be trained out of this fallacy. I thought a good meeting was nice and broad – sorting peripheral issues – when greater focus on pedagogy was required (any meeting time is simply too precious – we must find other methods to communicate the day to day business). I also need to work much harder in making meaningful coaching time and ‘deliberate practice’ happen for all the colleagues in our faculty. I would admit to struggling to find the right process to make coaching really meaningful and transformative – more ‘deliberateness’ is still required!
In the last year, on a personal basis, my blog has been a fantastic way to reflect and perform a weekly attempt at ‘deliberate practice‘. I have formed a time and place to execute my habit, which has knocked on to me spending much more time researching and reflecting on the day job. It feels nothing like ‘work‘ in the traditional sense, but it complements my day job brilliantly. As a subject leader, it is actually hard to find time to be coached for my own classroom practice, but the willing audience for my blogs has often filled a void brilliantly, inspiring me onward. My coaching targets have been questioning and improving feedback (the subjects of many of my blog posts). When I read this great blog by Joe Kirby here, an eloquent synthesis of Hattie, it brought me back to our opening faculty meeting this year, when we looked at those very effect sizes and started to size up our own coaching needs. My focus on questioning and honing in on quality feedback – very nearly aligned with Joe Kirby’s blog recommendations. My progress has been flawed, as such things always are. My colleagues and I all need to work on undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ with greater consistency – even as the demands of the day job are legion – but then expertise in anything never came easy, or without considerable time and effort. Crucially, we have to want to commit that time and effort – we must keep on kicking!
Support resources for ‘Action Research’, ‘Deliberate Practice’ and ‘Coaching’: Action Research:
Needs a sign up for full access but useful: http://www.expansiveeducation.net/pages/about-us/action-research
Does what it says on the tin! http://www.actionresearch.net/
Highly recommended by Zoe Elder – need I say more? http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp
Quite simply the link of links! http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2012/07/21/the-best-resources-for-learning-about-the-10000-hour-rule-deliberative-practice/
Interesting article: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/04/09/the-father-of-deliberate-practice-disowns-flow/
Clear and very useful blog: http://lifehacker.com/5939374/a-better-way-to-practice
Great overview of coaching for schools: http://thebeechconsultancy.co.uk/uploads/files/leading-coaching-in-schools.pdf Another good overview: http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/pdf/5414_CfT_FINAL(Web).pdf
My faculty based coaching resources: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/keep-getting-better-coaching-in-our-english-media-faculty/
Thank you to @Andyphilipday for the conversation that inspired this blog and to @fullonlearning for the many great links on action research.
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (page 8, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)
One feedback strategy I have found helped enhance the writing of my students so far this year was the use of ‘gallery critique‘. The initial inspiration came from Ron Berger, whose ‘Ethic of Excellence‘ provided inspiration in the pursuit of motivating students. Like any teaching and learning strategy, it is far from flawless, but I think that having trialled it extensively with different groups, from students to teachers themselves, in staff training, it was well worth nominating.
After having selected the ‘gallery critique‘ strategy to meet the #blogsync brief of identifying a strategy that elicits motivation, it transpired that David Didau then wrote a peerless summary of the strategy here. This synthesis of research, expressed so skilfully, did make me think that my post had become rather redundant, but I wanted to explore some of the evidence base for the effectiveness of the strategy – particularly my specific use with my GCSE class.
More broadly, the evidence base for the effectiveness of feedback and assessment for learning is sound and thorough. Feedback has the greatest impact in John Hattie’s seminal synthesis of research, ‘Visible Learning‘; although, of course, feedback itself is a broad term. Dylan Wiliam is lauded as a guru in this particular area. He defined the five key areas of effective assessment for learning as follows:
– clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
– engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
– providing feedback that moves learners forward
– activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
– activating students as owners of their own learning
The “big idea” that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs.
(From ‘Excellence in Assessment‘ by Dylan Wiliam)
The strategy of ‘gallery critique‘ is so appealing because, done well, it addresses each of the five areas of effective assessment for learning. I have learnt, through experience of trailing the strategy, that clarifying the success criteria is essential if students are going to create work worthy of a gallery. Each time I now use the ‘gallery critique‘ method I make sure I have used multiple models of high quality work matching their task as a precursor. Also, equally crucial, is having the highest expectations of behaviour when undertaking the gallery reflection and feedback. It can be an off putting strategy if you have a challenging group, given you expect students to walk around the classroom, but, like anything in the classroom, they need training until this strategy just becomes a ‘new normal’ for how they would learn on a regular basis. Of course, it is about being explicit about exactly how students should move about the room. I demand silence during the gallery reflection stage, verbally celebrating students who are undertaking the task with particular focus. I ensure students have a scaffold for their responses using the ‘ABC’ feedback model (they write on their large post it notes – either A for ‘Agree with…’, B for ‘Build upon…’ and C for ‘Challenge…’). I also articulate tight time-frames to ensure students are focused on the job. I then select exemplars that have multiple examples of feedback and talk through them with the class, huddled around in an arc facing the work, questioning students appropriately. Students follow up the ‘gallery critique’ with some sustained ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, whilst I attempt to remedy any misapprehensions with individual students.
In terms of evidence, I focused upon using the strategy with my Y10 group preparing for an ‘Of Mice and Men’ controlled assessment. I regularly identified distinct improvements to drafted paragraphs based on using the ‘gallery critique‘ method; however, I am suspect about my own instincts here, because as Hattie states, almost every teaching intervention makes some form of improvement. That being said, we repeated this method of formative assessment, with the second batch of model paragraphs being distinctively better than the first (I included more exemplar models the second time around). I couldn’t grade this improvement, as it was part of the controlled assessment process, so any marking of drafts isn’t allowed (much to the annoyance of students who are used to this being the case), but the paragraphs were clearly better. I did want the ‘soft data’ of student voice evidence, so I undertook a student voice activity with my trial group. I did undertake the questionnaire just before their controlled assessment so they were nervous and lacking in confidence somewhat (by the end of the lesson I had a different response to their ‘confidence level’ question – with more than half of the group feeling more confident).
The evidence from the questionaries from my Y10 GCSE group is certainly not a ringing endorsement of the strategy! What clearly came through the questionnaire was that 82% of students in my GCSE group preferred teacher assessment over peer or self assessment. Only 18% favoured peer assessment. Of course, students are always dependent and reassured by teacher assessment, for good or ill, but it does draw into question whether this strategy enhances motivation, or whether it is simply defers the true gratification for students that is teacher assessment. One complication is that students know I will not, and cannot, mark a draft of their work, as the controlled assessment process prohibits this, so their annoyance may translate to their views on the questionnaire. 27% of students evaluating that the ‘gallery critique’ method was “not useful at all”; 32% thought it was useful at times; 18% deemed it useful and 18% thought it was very useful. Their reflective opinion did appear to clash with the quality of their written outcomes, but it is an interesting piece of evidence (arguably, watching videos would receive a high percentsge for its usefulness but I would be rightly sceptical of their judgement!). Interestingly, 64% of the group thought that reading the work of others was “useful at times”. Clearly, the desire for teacher led assessment predominates and is indeed the dominant model for education – why wouldn’t students be conditioned to be reliant upon it? Does the strategy motivate students undertaken in this specific manner in the English classroom? Clearly not as much as I thought.
The next crucial question: does it work? The proof will inevitably be in the summative pudding of the controlled assessment mark. I will be able to equate it with their previous reading assessment, not ideally as there are differences. I will also be able to compare their performance with other groups (again, recognising that a host of variables are at play) to ensure there is some hard data to supplement the student voice and my teacher observations of progress.
It is the case with assessment for learning, like most teaching strategies, a balanced variety of well honed approaches will work best to help students make progress. Peer assessment that is well scaffolded and modelled, and conducted with well chosen groupings, can be highly effective formative assessment, as the evidence suggests, but striking a delicate balance of assessment for learning is key. Students often dislike self-assessment, but that self-regulating skill is key to success, therefore we must persevere, ensuring our pedagogy scaffolds the assessment to make it purposeful and have impact.
It is only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Ron Berger when thinking about the value of the ‘gallery critique’ strategy:
“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)
In summary, ‘Gallery critique’ is one very useful formative assessment strategy for getting students to better ‘turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort’, making their work worthy of a gallery.
I started the school year talking with my faculty about our success in the summer and throughout the previous year and of course the areas we needed to improve. Upon reflection we could identify some clear reasoning why the successes occurred, hard earned as they were. The reasons primarily centred on having a team of very good teachers who taught very good lessons consistently (to bastardise a Bill Clinton phrase: “It is the teaching stupid!“) – which is backed up by hard-nosed lesson judgements. This was bolstered by our effective managing of data and our concentration upon the things that mattered that we could control, like controlled assessments (I think we are all agreed that is a dirty word that we will be happy to be rid of soon enough). What struck me, particularly having read John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers‘, was that we had some experienced ‘intuitions‘ about why we did well, some hard data and some soft data, all leading to the same conclusions, but that to continue to replicate that success we needed to be much more systematic with our evaluations and our evidence.
I wanted us to focus even more closely on what happened in the good lessons that made them consistently good – after all, that is point of what we are trying to do isn’t it – get better at teaching. I wanted to explicitly know this so that regardless of what assessment models or curricular systems are imposed upon us in the coming year, or even future years, we could still teach great lessons consistently: essentially “keeping he main thing the main thing”. We also reflected upon the truth that there is no ‘one size fits all formula’ for good teaching, but that did not stop us analysing the evidence of high impact strategies. Knowing that, and what interventions worked best, would be a crystallisation of all the answers we need. It takes effort, but done properly the rewards are huge (I don’t underestimate such effort when we are all pushed to the limits to do the job well – perhaps schools should have their own ‘Delivery Units‘ to to do the job across the school?)
I therefore wanted to make a concerted attempt to think with both the heart and the head (or the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Rider’ to unite my previous post) and to source the best evidence possible for great teaching. That included the epic meta-analyses of John Hattie and his team. I am in no doubt of the efficacy of this type of research; it is essential for medical research and it does add value to educational debate. I was, and am, however circumspect at the same time. Instinctively I asked how could individual teaching strategies be fairly judged within school contexts when there are a whole host of other factors at work simultaneously – a complex web even the sharpest of minds would struggle to delineate. For example, how could the success of ‘questioning‘ be fairly judged when at the same time ‘teacher subject knowledge‘, ‘class size‘ and a whole host of other effect sizes are at work? Therefore, I surmised that such data is imperfect. Yet, the more I read, the more I couldn’t avert myself from the fact that this was still the best way to source the answers about what made good teaching and good interventions effective. What is key is that the sheer scale and selectivity of the trials improved the quality and accuracy of the data, and continues to do so.
The ethical basis of ‘testing’ on children is a valid objection to such an evidence based approach. The idea of a ‘control group‘ not having an intervention instinctively sits uneasily with me. In practice, with a technology trial for example, it is hard to deny a class the right to use technology which may be most appropriate with a task. However, when I thought about it, I considered that many interventions can actually have a negative effect, or be a distraction, so it was a case, once more of thinking differently, thinking more scientifically and less emotionally. I am simply not in my job to be unethical, quite the reverse. What would be unethical would be to not undertake RCTs (randomly controlled trials) and to instead base our teaching, our interventions, indeed our entire system upon a hunch, or on a personal basis, solely based on ideology. When we move educational policy at break-neck speed, we are likely to take in unnecessary risks, which I deem wholly unethical. This is my primary objection to Gove’s Ebacc proposals. There is no evidence, no research and no trials to support his radical change. I find his approach arrogant and potentially dangerous. He is so caught up in the political expediency of a ‘shock doctrine‘ style swift change that he ignores the experts and the evidence. the obvious question is why then should educational policy not be driven by such an evidence base?
What we cannot do is simply rely upon the ‘noble myth‘ (described by Plato as well meaning, but flawed reasoning to perpetuate comfort for the greater good) of our intuitions alone, however experienced we are. Our well meaning, but flawed emotional response to ‘what has always worked‘ for us is always going to be too narrow in scope, too bound with our own emotional bias to be sufficient. We need to focus in on the practice and the pedagogy, which often means stepping back from the personal. Yes, we are all emotional beings (thankfully so – the best of us often being those most in touch with their emotional intuition), who teach with our head and heart, but we must reflect and make adjustments and plan improvements with as scientific an approach as possible if we are to properly define what is good teaching. As an English teacher, this strikes against some of my natural instincts, stemming from the Romantic ideal of individual genius and the power of emotional intuition to find ‘the answer‘.
Of course, any one source of evidence is too narrow if we have the opportunity to source more evidence from a variety of methods. The best answers, as I have stated, are to be found when we have the greatest breadth of the evidence: including hard data (ideally through rigorous control based trials), but also including soft data – like student voice and teacher feedback – and our personal and professional intuition as experienced experts – those aforementioned ‘noble myths‘. What is crucial is that we have policy makers, school leaders, subject leaders or teachers who do not unthinkingly implement changes based upon statistical evidence, provided by the likes of Hattie, without taking a full account of the unique context of their country, their school and their students. This would be foolhardy and it is a valid concern levelled at evidence led policy that we must address. School leaders, for example, will be sold snake-oil by gurus looking to sell their foolproof educational wares based on what they present as the most rigorous of evidence (of course that data will be flawed and manipulated, as such data can be). Some leaders are simply looking for a quick fix to their problems, when quick fixes don’t exist in schools! Therefore we must question the methodology behind the evidence and weigh up the factors impacting upon the evidence – again, taking a more scientific approach.
So what is to be done? In our faculty it is about trialling strategies and becoming more systematic about that trialling. It is about sharing our good practice and our good pedagogy, but crucially then evaluating its impact in a more rigorous fashion. In all honesty, our current evidence does not stand up to the scrutiny I outline above. Therefore it is important that we so the hard work to make this so. Focusing with utter consistency upon the pedagogy and the practice…and the evidence of impact.
This model of sourcing better evidence to justify change needs to replicated at school level and even on a national level. This is happening, but typically away from view. The Education Endowment Fund is currently running trials across a thousand schools in Britain to source evidence to direct policy – read this fascinating research on school interventions for instance: Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The debate is happening and policy people in Whitehall are listening: listen to Ben Goldacre’s brilliant analysis here on how evidence led policy is being undertaken in Whitehall (the education focused section begins around the twenty seven minute mark – including debate about phonics teaching). We must challenge the many ‘noble myths‘ that attend our educational discourse and source as must high quality evidence of impact as we can.
This blog is a short reply to the brilliant English teacher Tim Boulter and his excellent blog post on passion in teaching to be found here: http://thinkingonlearning.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-problem-of-passion.html. Unfortunately, Blogspot websites appear to disagree vehemently with my iPad! So is my reply to Tom’s thought-provoking post:
I agree that the word ‘passion’ is typically overused and easily abused. It has become commercialised and corporatised to a degree that we become cynical by the mere mention of the word. For this reason we should reclaim it – we are English teachers so it is our mystical right to do so! As you mention Hattie, I would argue he gives the best definition, particularly for educators – one that equates to your ‘evidence-based’ passion (it is so good I typed it up and included it in one of my old posts!):
“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”
Some sort of emotional all-encompassing love of teaching isn’t what Hattie advocates here I don’t think. Rather, he advocates almost exactly what you express as your passion for teaching – appropriately ‘evidence based’. For me, the most important bit is ‘deliberate practice’. I think that any teacher, inexperienced or expert, needs to have this type of passion or they will not become a great teacher. You are right that in the early days simply getting a handle on the craft of teacher makes it s challenge that can be far from enjoyable at times. I also agree that your passion can grow as your expertise grows – I am living that experience. Yet, I don’t think passion is the preserve of experienced teachers alone – the early foal-like tripping and falling of our NQT year, our training, our tricky third year…our ropey last Tuesday can still inspire a different shade of passion – a desire and passion to be better, to bounce back up and fail that bit better.
We can all love a snow day (frankly, I can’t wait to chuck snowballs with my kids on the next one!) , we can all feel like we want to chuck all of our marking into the river once in a while, BUT we do need an overriding enjoyment for working with kids; in seeing the learning spark ignited; in being challenged daily in a multitude of ways (often in ways we never expected – which is the fun but frightening bit!).
Call it passion – I do. Expect it of colleagues – I do. Struggle with it at times – I do. Treasure having it – I do!
This year our English and Media faculty are undertaking a coaching programme as part of our constant quest to keep getting better. We are aiming to move, in blunt OFSTED labels, from ‘Good’ to ‘Outstanding’, and coaching is a key process for us to improve together. Our coaching approach has been met with a timely redesign of classrooms. We were lucky enough to have our ugly, ramshackle classrooms redecorated over the Summer – a process we undertook to consciously create a clearer, more spartan space – decluttered and wholly functional – designed for the business of great learning, not a glorified storage room! One small, but key decision, was to multiply the number of whiteboards on the classroom walls to improve pedagogy and to enhance the learning. I wanted to share how this small, relatively inexpensive tool can impact positively upon learning.
I want to explain the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this small tweak to the learning environment (a small tweak, but one that has already has had a positive impact upon pedagogy). A couple of years ago we decided to move en masse to group tables for each English classroom. This one move had a profoundly significant impact upon our whole pedagogical approach. We valued the impact of cooperative learning; we viewed peers as a positive agent for developing learning; we viewed learning as most often being a social undertaking – so we worked together and applied a standardised group based approach (as we share many classrooms – having a standardised seating approach is eminently practical). There were attendant fears about behaviour being negatively impacted, but we shared ideas and experiences and it has been a very successful change. With our recent classroom redesign we wanted to develop upon the collaborative learning approach, encouraged by the searing design, with the introduction of multiple whiteboards on the walls. We also wanted to decentre (sounds a bit like new age nonsense I admit!) the classroom away from the perennial ‘face the front’ style of classroom. Having the multiple whiteboards allows for a greater degree of flexibility, whereat the teacher can work with smaller groups, or other activities, such as students writing on the different boards simultaneously etc.
We had little actual experience of using multiple whiteboards as a tool. As a department we had never even had more than one interactive whiteboard, alongside the more standard whiteboard for writing in any one classroom. The nearest we had got to multiple whiteboards on the walls were small mini whiteboards, or having a departmental flip chart (we always had one of odd lurking about, but it was never consistently in use). But this year we invested in extra whiteboards to try and develop the collaborative approach; it worked alongside our other new tool for collaborative learning – our investment in twenty four new iPads. We have therefore placed these new tools at the heart of our coaching, with the following two faculty targets (alongside crucial personal coaching targets) so we can support and focus training time upon these areas:
1.iPadagogy: using the iPad to enhance student motivation as well as core pedagogy on a consistent basis. There will be an explicit focus upon using the iPad to improve AFL strategies, providing feedback, classroom discussion and collaborative learning.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.
2. ‘Making the Learning Visible’: using the multiple whiteboards to enhance core pedagogy. There will be an explicit focus upon using the whiteboards to enhance guided writing, providing feedback, making learning objectives and key vocabulary clear and classroom discussion.
Success criteria: student feedback; peer observations & collaboration; student outcomes; student attainment.
Now, we didn’t start with the tools to dictate our direction – instead, we identified the assessment for learning strategies and pedagogy we viewed as having greatest impact (as John Hattie states always “Know thy impact”), then we sought the tools to do the job. We have invested time and effort into sharing our experiences and developing our pedagogy. Teachers have been unanimously positive about how this relatively minor tweak has helped to transform many teaching and learning experiences. The following images are one simple example of the boards in use:
1. ‘Main Whiteboard’: Projected images are displayed here (it is not an interactive whiteboard – I found those clumsy tools that were expensive and not very engaging for students) and we annotate when appropriate, using this as the ‘main’ board. Here the task is displayed in a Word file and simply annotated.
2. ‘Second Board’: This board is marginally smaller and on the left hand side of the room. Here the board displays notes made by the students who had chosen the ‘Guardian’ writing task.
3. ‘Third Board’: This board is once more smaller, but on the right hand side of the room. Here the board displays student notes for the ‘York Press’ writing task.
Like the writing task exemplified in these images, the multiple boards provide extra flexibility for ‘making the learning visible’ on a daily basis. The following is a sample list of activities for which the multiple whiteboards have been used as an effective tool so far:
– Guided writing: either teacher led, or written up by students, the secondary board allows for guided writing that can then be left on the board, whilst other activities/notes etc. can be written up on the ‘main’ board
– ‘Competitive’ writing: this fun and competitive activity has proven very fruitful. Students can be pitted against one another, or against the teacher, for writing tasks. Different groups can write up their findings/answers on one board, whilst other groups do the same on the other/s. The very ‘visible’ aspect of the write up is then ideal for subsequent feedback
– Writing up learning objective or key words: the boards provide the opportunity for the teacher to note either the learning objective, the key words for the lesson, or both, and leave them there in a dedicated space. It makes them unobtrusive if you are planning upon showing some media, or working up examples on the ‘main board’ – whilst making them easy to reference in a highly visible way
– Small group work: the boards provide a flexible opportunity for the teacher to work with a specific group of students, who perhaps are struggling to make progress, whilst the rest of the group can work away, without the central ‘front space’ of the classroom drawing everyone in (also, once more, the ‘main’ activities/stimulus etc. can be left on the ‘main whiteboard’ for as long as required)
– ‘Question walls’ and visible feedback: with the extra whiteboards the teacher can flexibly allocate spaces for ongoing formative assessment of progress. As noted in my previous posts, I am a strong advocate of ‘question walls’. Now, a wall display, with a collection of post it notes, does the job brilliantly, but a whiteboard provides a similarly simple tool for a question space (they can be larger and more visible than the typically small post it notes, therefore other students can interact with the questions). The other board can simultaneously be used for feedback/great ideas of various sorts – the options are endless.
For our faculty, these extra tools have helped to positively tweak our pedagogy and provide more flexibility for collaborative learning, as well as more varied direct instruction approaches. It doesn’t have the glamour or endless applications of the iPad, or the interactivity of the (still very expensive) interactive whiteboard – but they are relatively cheap and they work – simply but powerfully. Practically, they do need to be big enough to be useful – but ask yourself – if an extra whiteboard wouldn’t fit on your wall space – is there too much on there in the first place? Is your wall space glorified wall paper, or is it used to really develop learning? We thought long and hard about how the learning environment enhances the pedagogy – we still have displays of outstanding, but we are also using our wall space much more effectively due to the multiple whiteboards (whilst trying not to overly clutter the walls). If you don’t have a bells and whistles new building, this small addition to the learning environment can be a really positive marginal gain. I would highly recommend giving multiple whiteboards a try.
Our Flexible Friend
The idea of students sitting in front of PCs learning how to use Word is as dead as the proverbial dead parrot. It is already an antiquated model of learning – like chalk or fountain pens with ink-wells; it has a whiff of the twentieth century about it, rather than preparing our students for the future. Whilst the DfE dithers about what they should do with technology (Mr Gove clearly wants to reboot the chalk and talk bygone age), schools are left with a rapidly changing world, where budgets are at a premium and ICT often stretches what budgets now allow. All the while, students are learning on their iPads, Android tablets and smart phones, writing more in texts and tweets daily than in their collective writing experience during the school week. We aren’t harnessing this expertise, never mind guiding it to a place of higher learning!
Clearly, the Microsoft model of a straight-jacketed suite of programmes, with little synchronicity between devices, is a thing of the past. Students want to instantly access information and media (whilst editing, adapting and creating their own) and we need to harness and shape this creativity. Whatever subject we teach, we also need to guide students towards a digital literacy that helps them source the best information, filtering out the European food mountain style piles of rubbish that litters the web. Sitting in front of an ageing fleet of PCs isn’t going to do the job. The flexibility of students working in groups filming with an iPad, or making a presentation with ExplainEverything, for example, then seamlessly showing their films through Apple TV or AirPlay, is an instantaneous way of making the learning visible. It also has the added bonus of making the learning feel more ‘real’ and more familiar to students.
No longer should Geography teachers, or Maths teachers, or Art teachers, or indeed teachers of any subject, have to traipse across the school to find a computer room – losing fifteen minutes of the lesson in the process, gaining a moist folder and a raucous group of excitedly damp students. We shouldn’t have to struggle to make advanced room bookings that then become superfluous because we didn’t follow the gold plated plan! The byword for new technology must be flexibility – flexibility in how and where students can learn.
Familiarity breeding contentment, not contempt
Educational luminaries such as John Hattie and Dylan William have found little concrete evidence to support the view that technology has a transformative effect on learning. Indeed, what we know is that key is the teacher – they are the nexus for learning, technology is just a tool. But what if the tools teachers use actually has leverage into a wealth of expertise and learning already possessed by students? The research on these mobile and flexible devices is still in its infancy which makes finding an evidential ‘answer’ problematic, but if we know that students understand new things in the context of things they already know, then it stands to reason that we should make the unfamiliar familiar by using familiar tools. Hattie and William have inevitably been looking to research from the past – where the older fixed model of technology has never truly enriched learning in any transformative way. We have all been guilty of looking backwards: whole class ICT, perched impassively in front of some poor imitation of a game, or a clunkingly slow VLE is a weak version of what is truly familiar to students – therefore it is dismissed as phony by students. With some degree of teacher expertise (I don’t think the teacher has to be an outstanding technological expert – have you seen a five year old navigate a mobile phone or an iPad quicker than their grandparents ever could?) we can tap into a world of familiar knowledge and skill possessed our students – not only that – we must do if we are to help shape their crucial digital literacy.
For good or ill, students live with technology as an integral part of their lives; how they communicate and socialise, and of course, how they learn. If we could harness the impassioned determination to master the latest incarnation of Fifa or COD in Maths or Science lessons, or even ICT itself, we would most definitely be onto something. Now, I’m not suggesting the ‘gamification’ of our curriculum – but on the iPad for instance, there are a wealth of apps, such as: ExplainEverything, iMovie, ComicLife, Notability etc. which can take the written word and transform it into something more real and make it multi-modal like the texts with which they engage with every day and will do so in future.
If you making using ICT tools something special, a treat, then students are in danger of not learning the knowledge you are seeking. Instead they may only remember the novelty of the change in their learning, they may remember playing with the tool, not learning the knowledge being leveraged by the tool. Students learn and remember more effectively when their emotions are stimulated – it they are even momentarily elated by using iPads, then that has the potential to override their long term memory – and the tool becomes obstructive to the learning. Put simply, using flexible, mobile ICT devices must be done frequently and as an integral part in how we teach and students learn, otherwise they will become another novelty or gimmick. Using iPads may have an initial prestige, but when that wears off the real learning will begin, and with the right pedagogy, the learning can be amplified by the skilful applications available. In short, if we use the tools a lot they will lose their gimmick factor and become very valuable tools that can stretch and enhance learning.
I would like to note that our faculty is undertaking an iPad pilot, which began this year. We have already seen some outstanding learning in evidence, with student motivation raised by using the tools, because of their prestige, but also because of the teacher using the tools to make student learning instantaneously visible on a regular basis. We have honed in on teachers becoming expert with a smaller range of apps, whilst using the devices as a collaborative tool for group work, with some capacity for a one-to-one technology model (this is inessential, however, as we have planned to use the tool in groups). It hasn’t all been plain sailing – there have been issues with saving student work; with failures with Apple TV etc., but our use of ICT as a tool for learning has multiplied nearly exponentially – frequency and familiarity matter. We are moving beyond the ‘distraction stage’ of the new technology, where students may be at risk of remembering only the use of the new tool, rather than committing the knowledge and learning to long term memory. We are moving into a stage of greater familiarity, and with sound pedagogy, we will continue to make marginal gains in our teaching and learning using these powerful tools for learning.
Over the last few weeks I have been considering how to apply David Brailsford’s ‘aggregation of marginal gains‘ approach to help teachers, myself, and our English and Media Faculty included, move from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ in their daily practice. I think the whole concept of ‘marginal gains’ is so useful because it is simply about the pursuit of excellence, with precise language and rigour, and there is also a very engaging story of real success underpinning the idea. I think the pursuit of improving ‘marginal gains’ is something we all do, and have done in many areas of our life. It is not new. It is not advanced Astrophysics even! It is a direct and effective language for our best practice – it is a concept that can give clarity to our pursuit of excellence – or ‘outstandingness‘!
Now, I am interested in those crucial margins that make for outstanding teaching and learning. That is where we all wish to be as teachers. I am most interested in the tipping point between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, because I think improving in that area could be transformative for our students and their experience of school – exam results etc. positively would follow. The most recent evidence across all the key stages, undertaken by OFSTED, states that 70% of lessons in English were rated ‘good’ or more in both phases of education, with only 15% being judged as ‘outstanding’ – source: ‘Moving English Forward’ (OFSTED, 2012). In the equivalent Maths report: ‘Mathematics – Made to Measure’ (OFSTED 2012) – 11% of lessons were deemed ‘outstanding’; 43% were ‘good’; with 42% being judged ‘satisfactory’. By extrapolating these findings across the span of the curriculum it could be judged that the vast majority of teaching is bumping around the ‘good’ judgement area – which is a very positive starting point for developing teaching and learning. That is not to say the third of lessons that are not deemed ‘good’ in English, with more so in Maths, are not crucial. Indeed, they require explicit attention from teachers and schools to address the matter. Yet, the vast majority of teaching is ‘good’, and despite what Daily Mail editorials tell us, we are striving to be even better. In such a context we are all aiming for outstanding, therefore collaborating to the best of our ability to share our best pedagogy should be a priority. We should be looking to achieve every ‘marginal gain’ possible – not only that, we should have a rigorous focus upon the marginal gains that have the greatest impact upon student attainment.
Last week, the peerless teacher-blogger, David Didau (his Twitter guise being @Learningspy for those people who have not discovered his epic blog back-catalogue of pedagogical goodness!), had been in pursuit of those crucial gains that help teachers strive from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. He quickly combed the expertise of Tweachers by crowd sourcing #marginalgains for teaching and learning from an array of experts – coming up with an intriguing list in the following blog post: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/10/14/outstanding-teaching-learning-missed-opportunities-and-marginal-gains/.
Like most teachers, I looked at the list and thought long and hard about each point. I considered why I agreed with some more than others – before doing what most males thought about doing – putting the list into an order, even creating a top five! It isn’t just Nick Hornby who loves lists, he is speaking for many of us mildly obsessive male types!
I thought for days about those key marginal gains in lessons. I got thinking about what I viewed were the ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ – those gains which I believe have the most significant impact upon progress in learning – which ultimately makes the difference from a ‘good’ lesson to an ‘outstanding’ one. What most teachers know is that there isn’t a huge difference between the two judgements – it is, of course, marginal. It often exists in those seconds when a task is being outlined; feedback on student answers is being given or one crucial key question is being answered…or not being answered as the case may be!
We often miss those key ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ in our planning. In our preparation we may spend twice as long preparing a photoshopped image, for example, than we spend on forming the crucial question for which the progress of the lesson hinges. For instance, why is it that a department could all use the exact same scheme of learning with any given ‘outstanding lesson plan’; one that the resources should “make a marked contributions to the quality of learning” (OFSTED Criteria); “expert subject knowledge is applied consistently” (OFSTED) in the plan; where student behaviour and attitude is such that they “are aspirational and…are determined to succeed” (OFSTED) – but yet for one teacher the lesson is deemed ‘outstanding’ and for another it isn’t? I would expect that for many observers the key differences are far from obvious. What we must do it eradicate the mystery of those marginal differences. We must pull back the veil and share the findings.
I don’t think that the marginal difference between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ is to be found in the varying quality of resources, or the varying technological tools, or even the choice of task necessarily. Each and every element of a lesson has a degree of importance obviously, but I think the more flexible elements of a lesson, not always explicit in the plan, are the most essential. Those essential elements are questioning and formative oral feedback. These, I believe, are the key ‘hinge marginal gains’ that are the drivers of outstanding teaching and learning – they are the most significant difference in that hazy margin between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. They are the grease that the oils the progress of learning. This may be why Wilshaw sagely stated in his speech to the NCSL that:
“Ofsted inspectors will not arrive with a preferred teaching style or model lesson.
Lessons, of course, should be planned, but not in an overcomplicated or formulaic way. A crowded lesson plan is as bad as a crowded curriculum. We don’t want to see a wide variety of teaching strategies unless they have coherence or purpose.”
Yes, I am quoting Wilshaw! He does have moments of clarity and good sense! We may be implementing every innovation under the sun, we might have technology invading every fibre of our lesson – but “rapid” progress in learning and students acquiring knowledge and developing understanding “exceptionally well” comes down to asking great questions, receiving answers, acting upon that information and shaping the next steps in the learning. They give ‘coherence’ to learning that engenders the rapid knowledge and understanding required for students. Reflecting upon this further it is clear that questioning and formative oral feedback are inextricably linked. We must define and unpick those links carefully.
As Dylan William stated, perhaps we should stop doing so many ‘good things’ in our daily practice! See his speech: http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=wKLo15A80lI&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DwKLo15A80lI.
Perhaps we should instead hone in upon improving the ‘hinge marginal gains‘ as our priority for developing our pedagogy and our lesson planning. With planning, departmental coaching, whole school teaching and learning development, we could focus with absolute rigour on this pairing – then those marginal gains we experience could make that marginal, but highly significant aggregated gain for our students, and we may well be judged as ‘outstanding’.
In following posts are what I see as a good starting point in addressing the crucial ‘hinge point marginal gains‘ :
I am just momentarily emerging from the deep waters of the first week back – the frantic planning, data crunching and the usual torrent of jobs. Amongst the maelstrom it is so easy to forget what happened five minutes ago – never mind what happened in the opening day training session (our SOLC – Subject Outstanding Learning Community). What I am determined to do this year is to relentlessly focus on the main thing – the main thing will be our coaching programme – with a complete focus on teaching & learning.
The starting point was to reflect on the evidence before we then considered our specific coaching requirements. The place to start was therefore John Hattie and his brilliant ‘Visible Learning’ – with his vast armoury of research (with a little bit of OFSTED):
After discussion of this wider evidence, we then honed in on our specific Faculty targets. Each teacher then got the chance to talk and reflect upon what they needed to develop individually to improve their pedagogy. We have a range of great teachers with diverse skills and experience – so am I exciting about coaching and, crucially, being coached. I shared my personal coaching goals as a model – fully aware that I am really intent on not losing sight of my teaching because of my Subject Leader role:
Now, the real business of graft and craft starts – trialling, failing, failing better and succeeding! We need to make sure we don’t lose the main thing – share what works, share what doesn’t – embrace the failures as steps to success. I love what Hattie simply calls ‘deliberate practice’ – being passionate and rigorous about pedagogy – reflecting upon what worked and what didn’t – going again and improving still further. I’m already pretty tired and it is only week one, but I feel quietly confident that we will have another positive year ahead, and that will keep me going!